The Spanish wine scene has been transformed in recent years, says world authority on the country’s wines, John Radford. As part of the process of updating his award-winning book The New Spain, he oversaw our largest ever tasting of Spanish wines. Here he reflects on the highlights, and on what’s changed.
Upon sampling the last of the 535 wines which made up the practical research into the progress of Spanish wine producers over the last five years, my initial instinct was to retreat to the loft and shut myself away. Not through any feelings of disenchantment, you understand. No, rather to scour around on the offchance that there lay hidden a dusty old title deed to some vineyard land in the DO Priorat with a few hectares of ancient, neglected, 100-year-old Garnacha or Cariñena. That way, I need never worry about my retirement.
Such has been the rate of change among previously unheralded Spanish DOs. We saw change starting in the mid-1990s, in three major areas. First, winemakers rediscovered terroir and started to experiment with making wines from smaller and more coherent patches of vineyard, rather than blending wines made from all over the region. This has not gone down well with many traditionalists, especially in areas such as Rioja and Penedès, where early success was the result of the opportunity to blend, for example, hot lowland Garnacha with elegant highland Tempranillo, to achieve a consistent style. However, the big hitters these days are nearly all ‘sizing down’ their source vineyards. As a result, they are finding that there is a market for wines with a guarantee of individuality and quality, even at silly prices.
The second change has been a restructuring of the Spanish wines industry. Almost everywhere, creaking, dinosaur coops have been transformed. Today, they have merged into limited companies, hired consultant winemakers and started producing Spanish wines at a quality-price ratio which would make your eyes pop. The irony is that they are making less wine for more money, yet the opportunity to do so was there all the time. We should be grateful that it is happening now.
The third major change has been in the perception of the market. From the largest to the smallest, the old ‘production-driven’ culture (‘Hello, we’ve finished making our wine this year. When are you coming to buy it?’) has been replaced by a ‘market-driven’ culture in which bodegas actually look at what’s selling and what’s profitable, and work towards that end.
This is not necessarily entirely a good thing, however. Witness the Parker effect on Bordeaux, which has seen a trend to make Spanish wines in a certain style in the hope that the über-critic will give them a favourable score. Such a precedent is not good for regions which have established a reputation for a certain type of wine, and regularly draws vituperation from traditionalists.
In addition, of course, the Spanish wines national law has changed. June 2003 saw the creation of new wine categories and the adjustment of some of the naming and ageing regulations. Perhaps the most significant has been the passing into national law of the ‘DO de Pago’ category, which bestows DO status on outstanding single estates even if they are located outside an existing DO area. This promises to be a fascinating area for development.
There are the good, the bad and the cynical winemakers in every region of the world, of course, but research for my new book, backed up by the massive tasting detailed on p42–46, threw up a few pointers as to what’s new. One of the most encouraging trends is that vine growers have finally twigged that when their accountants tell them to grub up and replant vines after 35 years because the yield is falling, they’re throwing away their most valuable asset. DOQ Priorat is a prime example. Ancient vineyards neglected for a century with gnarled old Garnacha producing one bunch per vine are now fetching Knightsbridge prices per hectare as producers effortlessly sell their entire production at t40 a bottle. Eight of my personal top 13 wines for sheer quality – though not necessarily value – were from Priorat (see table 1).
Luckier probably are the three DOs in Zaragoza – Calatayud, Cariñena and Campo de Borja – which also have plots of old vines but don’t have to pay Priorat land prices to buy them. These are the source of some of the best-value wines from Spain, if not the world. Five of my top ten value Spanish wines are from Zaragoza (see table 3).
The DOs in Castilla y León are also benefitting from rising land prices in Ribera del Duero. Toro has seen investment from such interests as Vega Sicilia and the (Mariano) García family. Cigales is next in line and the various Vinos de la Tierra in the region are jockeying for position before the first VCIG (Vino de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica) classifications are handed out later this year. Arribes del Duero and Ribera de Arlanza are the front-runners.
Meanwhile, the south is enjoying a rush of investment. We have already seen sherry behemoths Osborne and González Byass investing in Castilla-La-Mancha, but new sleeping giants are awakening. One such is the vast, rambling and fertile DO Ribera del Guadiana, notably the outlying sub-zones of which few people have even heard, never mind visited. Two examples are Luis Gurpegui Muga (Rioja, Navarra) and Pérez Barquero (Montilla-Moriles) both of whom are making wine in the area. This is likely to continue as long as planting rights are still available.
The Vino de Pago category looks likely to expand now that it’s part of national law. To recap: the autonomía of Castilla-La Mancha unilaterally created the category in late 2000, in order to recognise the ‘maverick’ winemakers who break the rules but consistently turn out Spanish wine of world-class quality from a single estate. At roughly the same time, an organisation called Grandes Pagos de Castilla was formed, pulling together nine (now 11) of the most influential private wine estates of Spain. Only two were members of a DO.
Informed opinion was that ‘great estates’ who weren’t in Castile would immediately want the same opportunity. The national government acknowledged this with the new law of 2003. The first two had already been created in 2002: DO Dominio de Valdepusa (Marqués de Griñón in Malpica de Tajo, Toledo) and DO Finca Élez (Manuel Manzaneque in El Bonillo, Albacete), and the way is now open for all the others to apply for what is likely to become the ‘premier cru’ of Spanish wines hierarchy.
As for the tasting, in gathering together the wines, I wrote to all the Consejos Reguladores asking them to ask their members to send two wines per bodega. Rioja, Cava, Navarra, Penedès and Priorat sent most wines, and this shows in the results. Rioja proved that it can walk the fine line between price and quality and turn out great wines at affordable prices (even given its recent tribulations over see-sawing prices and overly cheap basic wines). Ribera del Duero was less forthcoming, and there was hardly a squeak from La Mancha or Jumilla, which is why they are notable by their absence from the results.
I was particularly delighted to see Méntrida – long the most reviled DO in Spain – poke its head above the parapet in the form of Don Cecilio from Bodegas La Cerca (see table 3). It goes to show there’s no such thing as a bad grape or bad area – just bad winemaking. Even the cobwebby corners of forgotten Spain are waking up to this.